Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga Appleseed
by Jason Thompson, Jul 21st 2011
Episode LX: Appleseed
Masamune Shirow is a manga artist who became a pin-up artist. I can't blame him; there's more money there. His first art book, Intron Depot in 1992, was a taste of his future career, full of pictures of athletic-looking women in the embrace of giant organic-looking machines and wasplike mecha. Shirow, like Katsuhiro Otomo, rocked the world in the '80s and '90s with his hard science fiction cyberpunk manga and the anime based on them (the original Ghost in the Shell movie was the first anime to hit #1 on the US home video charts), and like Otomo he has moved from manga to another career. He's now basically an illustrator, who draws game and anime designs and books: books full of beautiful color, Photoshop effects, and women in skintight bodysuits with crazy detailed thigh muscles.
With the TV series Appleseed XIII coming out, I went back and reread Appleseed, Shirow's first lengthy hit manga that began in 1985. Originally translated by Eclipse Comics in 1988, it's still available from Dark Horse, making it one of the oldest manga continually in print in America. (Dark Horse keeps their old manga in print better than any other publisher.) Ghost in the Shell is more popular, but I went back to reread Appleseed because I like Appleseed better.
Appleseed is a postapocalyptic science fiction special-ops story set in the year 2127. (You have to read Shirow's extremely detailed notes to find the date.) Years after World War III and World War IV, the world we know it has been reshaped. New countries have risen up and old ones have fallen hard. Nuclear weapons were never used in the conflict, so most of the planet is still livable, but ruined cities and plant-overgrown wastelands abound, returning to nature like in that TV show Life After People. In one of the bonus sections, Shirow shows us a map of the Earth, with North America, Europe and most of Asia riddled with bomb and meteorite craters.
Two survivors travel among the ruins, which are intact enough (thanks to chemical weapons driving out entire populations without wrecking the buildings) for them to cook in the kitchen of abandoned apartments. They are Deunan and Briareos, former S.W.A.T. members, from a time when their government still existed. Deunan is short-haired, wiry and ripped, good with a knife and a gun. Briareos, her partner and boyfriend, is a hulking cyborg with his entire outer body replaced by metal (although he still bleeds); his face has five eyes, no obvious mouth, and two big antennae like bunny ears. (Like Batou in Ghost in the Shell, he's proof that Shirow would rather draw anything other than handsome men.)
The needs of survival have made them ruthless; when bandits in tanks attack them, Deunan doesn't think twice about shooting a man in the face. But when they meet Hitomi, a woman traveling inside a strangely advanced Landmate (a small mecha), they put aside their suspicions and accept her invitation to go back with her to her homeland, Olympus. Following Hitomi, Deunan and Briareos leave the wasteland and find a land of towering arcologies, gleaming skyscrapers, blue skies and lush green parks. Olympus, a new country only a few decades old, has risen from the ashes of the old world and already become the most powerful nation on Earth. While most of the world remains mired in mud, blood and filth, Olympus is like a paradise, justly administered by AEGIS, the "central management bureau," and protected by superior science despite its small size.
Deunan and Briareos shack up with Hitomi and some other vagrants picked up from the outlands, and begin their new life in this perfect world, full of long showers (for Deunan at least) and picnics on the grass. But Hitomi didn't just invite them to Olympus out of sheer goodness; Deunan and Briareos' combat skills are a hot commodity, and they are recruited for jobs in the police. With some hesitation, they decide to join the cops and help protect Olympus from malcontents and terrorists, including the secret agents of other nations. There's just one problem: the people of Olympus aren't human. 80% of the population of Olympus are Bioroids, artificial humans cloned from the combined DNA of various scientists, notables and donors. "Personality and emotional responses can be conditioned by training, education, and the child-rearing environment…in a sense, they're the most compact, complex, and sophisticated robots imaginable." In the senate of Olympus, cybernetically augmented posthumans debate their plans for the planet Earth, planning to set up an Olympus-like system across the globe. Can Deunan and Briareos, who have lived their lives in the freedom and danger of the wasteland, support this New World Order which wants to change the very nature of humanity? "I thought it was good here, too…at first," says Chiffon, one of the other outlanders picked up from outside like Deunan and Briareos. "But it's a zoo…a zoo for those weird animals that build their own cages and hide inside of them."
Appleseed deals with a lot of the same issues as Ghost in the Shell, but at a slightly lower-tech level; instead of asking "Are you still human if you're a disembodied consciousness on Wi-Fi?", it asks "Are you still human if you're a vat-raised, genetically-engineered test-tube human whose aggressive and negative traits have been smoothed out?" There's A.I.s and cyborgs in Appleseed too, of course—the main character is sleeping with one—but Appleseed feels less like a posthuman cyberpunk story and more in the mode of classic Utopian/dystopian sci-fi, such as Isaac Asimov's Foundation series and, especially, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, with a dash of Gattaca. The similarities to Brave New World (or if you prefer the Hollywood version, Demolition Man) are pretty strong; like the Savage in Brave New World, Deunan and Briareos are outsiders from a rougher, more violent world, who come into the perfect society and shake things up. "Seems our species has just two options left," muses one character, "Pursue our every want and desire, and thereby drag the whole world down to destruction, or change our very nature and preserve this present sterile utopia in stasis forever."
Sterile utopia vs. savage outsiders? Are Deunan and Briareos noble, pure, savage humans who are disgusted by the decadent bio-utopia of Olympus? Well, no, actually. There are weird things in this new world, such as gigantic spidery robots (Shirow's #2 favorite thing to draw, after naked chicks) and Artemis, a parthenogenetic catgirl bioroid apparently designed by the creators of Olympus to make sure that humanity's wild side never dies out. But unlike Brave New World, there's no sense of real nasty dystopia, no shock scenes where we discover that the Bioroids like to eat Soylent Green or mutate into puddles of slime or wear new designer faces every day. (In fact, in one of the few scenes where something really evil happens, it's normal humans, not Bioroids, who are found abusing slaves in the lawless outlands.) Compared to some of the weird posthuman things in Ghost in the Shell, Appleseed is as cozy as Baseball and Mom's Apple Pie, and you get the feeling that Shirow thinks that Olympus would be a pretty good place to live.
So good, in fact, that Shirow's protagonists would willingly trade their civil rights for it. When Deunan and Briareos become anti-terrorist squad members in Olympus, they don't screw around. "In this country, terrorists have zero rights, and don't you forget it!" "Money should be spent to protect victims, not criminals. Best thing to do with those thugs is wipe them out." There's even a scene when the cops put the i-don't-give-a-sh#t-down on some corrupt politician shouting "I have diplomatic immunity!", like Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon 2. Reading Appleseed in the year 2011, I was a little disturbed by how familiar Shirow's 25-year-old diatribes against terrorism sounded, even the subplot about Islamic terrorists, although in Appleseed's future they're partnered up with fascist American Southerners, since America, too, is now a rogue state. It's the sort of manga that Jack Bauer in 24 might like. It makes a good contrast with Dominion, another Shirow manga, a over-the-top parody of the whole bad-cops-in-a-dystopian-future thing. I think Shirow is being completely sincere when he praises the Olympus S.W.A.T. team members, and that he really is in favor of a more big-government (some would say totalitarian) society with far-reaching police powers, but it's nice to know he can also make fun of himself.
Appleseed's art is crude at the beginning, but it gets better. Its retro-cyberpunk world of gleaming metal, funky machines and diamond-nosed girls reminded me of MEE and early Kia Asamiya, until I realized that they started years after Shirow and were just copying his style. (On the story more than art side, it also feels like an influence on Hiroki Endo's manga Eden.) The art really improves in the 2nd and 3rd volumes, getting more and more detailed and elaborate as Shirow's manga output slowed down. Shirow's obsessiveness also comes through in the text. Appleseed is heavily researched hard sci-fi, and there are footnotes explaining everything. The timeline in the back of one of the books explains the backstory of the world from 1988 to 2147. Characters continually deliver long speeches about science, sociology and politics, which don't tell us much about their characters but do tell us what Shirow has on his mind. Rumor has it that Shirow used to be a schoolteacher, but now he lectures his readers, not his students. Occasionally these long science essays in manga form are delivered by scantily clad women lounging voluptuously (or muscle-ly, since that's more Shirow's thing) in bed, and other times they're delivered by heavily armored cyborgs and Landmates inbetween counterterrorist battles. The hard science doesn't stop in the action scenes: in one scene, Briareos jumps high in the air holding Deunan, and although they land safely, the G-force of the acceleration pools her blood, making her momentarily go blind. Even the Landmate mecha have been designed for realism. Shirow wants everything to be scientifically plausible: "I apologize for drawing a typical unrealistic manga fight scene," he writes in the notes for a scene in Appleseed Hypernotes, the final book so far of the series, which contains a portion of the unfinished volume five plus a lot of sketches and notes.
The density of Shirow's comics reminds me more of American comics than of manga. So do the characters, who are very cool and chill, not like the emo heroes and heroines of shojo and shonen manga. In Ghost in the Shell, this Shirow coolness finally reached the point that I didn't enjoy the manga that much. The problem with Shirow's manga for me is that it's not driven by the characters, it's driven by ideas: ideas about science, politics, whatever. But the core of Appleseed is the relationship between Deunan and Briareos, whose love for one another makes them more likeable than the Ghost in the Shell characters whose only bond is police comraderie. "Everything's all right now…my Briareos came back to me," says Deunan in one of their few quiet moments together between the gun battles. Their flirting and arguing is what convinces me that life in Olympus might be a good thing, much more than any of Shirow's lengthy rambles about the destiny of humanity.
The series doesn't really have an ending, but the climax of volume 2 feels like a conclusion, and the rest of the manga is isolated episodes or buildup for a longer plot that never got off the ground. I'd like it if Shirow went back to drawing manga, although I don't think he'd ever have it in him to tell a very emotional story, or a story about ordinary people. "Use ordinary people, and all you get is an ordinary society," says one of the Appleseed characters. Maybe, but some of the best moments in manga come from the moments about ordinary people doing ordinary things, even if one of them is a cyborg with bunny ears and another one is a highly trained mercenary. Details make an awesome manga, but I remember Deunan and Briareos so much better than I remember the muzzle velocity of the guns of Olympus.
Jason Thompson is the author of Manga: The Complete Guide and King of RPGs, as well as manga editor for Otaku USA magazine.
Banner designed by Lanny Liu.
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